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Final Bow: Saycon Sengbloh on the Best and Hardest Parts of Bringing Eclipsed to Broadway

The Drama Desk winner and Tony nominee stars with Lupita Nyong'o in Danai Gurira's drama set during the Liberian Civil War.

Saycon Sengbloh at the 2016 Tony Awards, where she was a nominee.
(© David Gordon)

Saycon Sengbloh is a 2016 Drama Desk Award winner and Tony nominee for her role in Danai Gurira's Broadway-debut play Eclipsed. In the Tony-nominated show, which also stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, Sengbloh plays a character officially billed as Wife #1, a title earned by being the first of four women captured and held captive by a Liberian rebel officer during the recent Liberian Civil War. It's an overwhelming role to return to each night, but for Sengbloh, the experience has been more than gratifying.

Performing in Eclipsed provides Sengbloh, the daughter of a Liberian father and American mother, with an opportunity to draw on her own heritage as well as to stretch her acting muscles on the Broadway stage. While this is Sengbloh's eighth Broadway show, it's her first time performing in a straight play rather than a musical. But part of the Eclipsed experience that Sengbloh refers to as both "one of the best" and "one of the hardest" has been the company's commitment to dedicating each performance to abducted and missing girls in Africa. Following each show, the company names a specific girl in "an effort to shine a continuous light on the victims of war, violence, and abuse."

"I think Lupita actually came up with the hashtag #knowhername," said Sengbloh. "And the specificity of it is really beautiful because it sort of drives home who is this individual girl and what is she missing out on in her life."

Saycon Sengbloh (back) with Pascale Armand and Lupita Nyong'o in the pre-Broadway Public Theater production of Eclipsed.
(© Joan Marcus)

1. What is your favorite line that you deliver?
There's a line I say: "It not easy oh!" In the Liberian culture it's kind of like in America like when people say "Give me a break" or "It's hard out here." Liberian people say that about a myriad of things…Like in the play I'm referencing the one girl's hair, but people will say it if you're tired and you're trying to get up, and you say, "It not easy oh."

2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
Body roll. Body roll. Body roll. Actually, when we say it with our accent, we say, "Body ro'," like R. O. What it is, is we have transitions in between all the scenes in the show, and there's this one transition where they play this really slow sort of R&B track. And there was one day when we were in tech rehearsals and they were just testing out the sound, and I was standing at the window because the lighting designers were lighting a totally different scene and the music was playing and I was standing there being lit for a different scene and I just started to do this body roll. And I was like "Body ro'!" And now every time we see something funny or somebody says something crazy, we'll be like, "body rooooo'!" Lupita particularly gets into the body roll…Body roll has taken over everything we do.

3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
There was one day that the set was supposed to turn around and it didn't. It felt terribly uncomfortable to us, but…like, a thing that normally happens in ten seconds, took thirty seconds…I don't think the audience knew the difference but to us, we were like, "oh my god! The house is not turning! What should we do with ourselves!?" We were in this holding pattern. It was the longest thirty seconds in life. But that only happened once. Our crew was on it. And I want to also mention, we have like the handsomest crew I've ever seen in a theater .

4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
We got a bag of goodies recently…and I don't know who they're from…But it was a bag of really nice things, random things like, here's a lunchbox and here's some lotion. And whoever did it, wrote this long letter about, "This lunchbox is great for you and…you did a great thing in the show." And they wrote all this stuff about the show and did not sign their name.

5. Who is the coolest person who came to see your show? (You can't say family!)
Ryan Coogler. He is the director of Creed and I'm a big Rocky fan. I watched Creed two times in the theater and then I bought the DVD. I shot a movie last year called Double Play and two of my cast mates and I, we went and saw Creed twice. We sat there weeping. We were like, "We have to get up early and be on set," and we're like, weeping at Creed. Ryan Coogler, he's the man…So when I met him in the dressing room, I was like, "What!?"

6. What is the most memorable interaction you've had with an audience member?
For me, it's like being in a restaurant and eating and then somebody comes over and is like, "Are you in Eclipsed?" That's always really cute. For people, it's like seeing a dog walk on hind legs. They just don't expect to see me with a modern outfit on, eating french fries. That's always really endearing to me.

7. What has it been like to make your Broadway straight-play debut?
It's really satisfying…I kept running into [Tony-winning Humans playwright] Stephen Karam at the various events, and then somebody said to him, "Oh well you know she sings." And he was like, "Really? Saycon, you sing?" And I was like, "Yeah." "You sing sing or you just sing?" And I was like, "No, I sing, sing." And somebody else told him, "Oh you need to just put her name in on YouTube." And so I ran into him at the Tonys and he said, "I got lost in the rabbit hole! Oh my god, you really do sing." And it was really lovely he just knows me as like a really great actress. I thought that was great.

Lupita Nyong'o, Saycon Sengbloh, and Pascale Armand in a scene from Broadway's Eclipsed.
(© Joan Marcus)

8. How has dedicating each performance to a specific girl affected how you think about the show?
It's made how I think about the show even deeper…It's really tied in to the show. Akosua [Busia]'s character Rita says, "What is your name?" "What did your mother call you?" It's a mantra that she says to each of the girls. And the girls are like…"Don't ask me my name!" We're just dealing with war, we're hurt, we're torn. And she's like, "Well, no, you know, what is your name?" It's been honestly one of the best things about this process. It's also been one of the hardest…the pressure of holding up a lens to this topic…I mean, a young woman said to me when I was signing autographs, she said, "You know I was a victim of sex trafficking. Thank you so much for your story." She was an American girl, she was like a little college student. She said, "Thank you guys so much for performing this story."

9. What element of your character do you most admire?
It's funny, Akosua said to me the other day, "I was looking at you and you were so tolerant. Number 3 was being crazy and you were just tolerant."

10. What's your favorite element of Liberian culture?
My favorite element is absolutely the food. The way that the food is prepared, the sauces. They call them soups but really in American cuisine, they would be considered to be more like stews or sauces…I love okra soup and I love cassava leaf soup…I love potato green. But my favorite absolutely is okra soup. It's kind of like a gumbo, but the okra is cooked down…It doesn't look that good…they chop the okra up really fine so when it's cooked you just see green and you see those little white seeds that are inside of it and then the red sauce and chunks of meat and chunks of fish. My mouth is watering!

Saycon Sengbloh with her 2016 Drama Desk Award for Eclipsed.
(© David Gordon)